Langdon Clay: Cars—New York City, 1974–1976 and Henry Wessel: Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide

IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT to say which is a greater source of nostalgic longing—classic American cars or the gritty New York of the 1970s. These fond memories are a bit of a puzzle, because the time they celebrate was hardly a golden age. Both the cars and the town, judged from our current vantage, were dangerous, environmentally damaging, and back then taken to be prima facie evidence of American excess and decay. Of course, those negatives probably constitute the very reason for the longing, our desire being for indulgence and abjection rather than prudence. In Cars—New York City, 1974–1976, photographer Langdon Clay feeds both fixations to lush and evocative effect by offering romanticized images of big automobiles sharply lit on dark and trash-strewn streets. The volume's especially wide trim size allows the vehicles languorous display across the page, as if they were Hollywood glamour gals reclining on divans. The names in evidence—Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, Pontiac Grand Am, Cadillac Coupe de Ville, Chevrolet Impala, Buick LeSabre, Gran Torino—conjure the vaguely European pretensions of an auto industry in pursuit of a classy cachet that would appeal to buyers who probably had never been to Europe.

Langdon Clay, Box car, Gran Torino Sport, in the Twenties or Thirties on the East side, 1975, C-print, dimensions variable. © Langdon Clay, Courtesy Steidl

Not all the cars are dreamboats of yore; lowlier species, such as the Ford Pinto, AMC Gremlin, and Dodge Lancer, also appear. But they too are bathed in generous and transformative light and, like their betters, seem to be improbable sculptures dropped from some brighter domain into the New York night. In the photo Box car, Gran Torino Sport, in the Twenties or Thirties on the East side, 1975 (above), the vehicle's crisp metallic sheen connotes imperviousness to anything the city might throw in its path; the torpedo-like design conveys movement even at a standstill. Not every car is so well-kept. Some are dented and dirty, others crusted over with snow. Missing hubcaps and duct-taped windows testify to the streets' depredations. With their neon signage, parking meters, absence of chain stores, and even a painted hopscotch court, the cityscapes that form the background for Clay's loving portraits also signal a gone world. The muscular profile of a Chevrolet Corvette keeping vigil in front of the legendary Everard Baths (closed during the aids epidemic) neatly captures a '70s moment, when the city was a tumultuous yet strangely innocent place.

In "Traffic," a body of work included in Henry Wessel's Traffic/Sunset Park/Continental Divide, the photographer persuasively punctures the romance of shiny chariots. Wessel photographed drivers stuck bumper-to-bumper as he commuted to San Francisco in the '80s. The black-and-white sequences feature cars of similar vintage to Clay's, but their cool beauty is undermined by his focus on the dour drivers, sunlight in bands across their impassive faces as they inch forward. The framing of each image by Wessel's own passenger window places the drivers in a series of boxes and reminds us that a car is often more prison than magical conveyance. Given that fact, who wouldn't choose the illusion of nostalgia.